Can’t Get There From Here

Original posted in London to New York blog, May 31, 2010

Petersburg, Alaska

THE Second Amendment of the US Constitution declares “the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed”.

The Mosquito Amendment, being written in braille on my left forearm, declares “the right of the people to bare arms shall be infringed by horrible, little buzzy things who leave you covered in welts and scabs and have you itching like crazy or covered in sticky, filthy anti-histamine cream”.

We have heard tales of a huge drop of Deet – the active ingredient in most anti-buzzy bastard sprays – in parts of India and Nepal which all but eradicated the rampant population.

From my experience of the last couple of weeks, the sprays are of no use whatsoever, but if the Alaskan authorities want somebody to drop bucket loads of the stuff on the annoying little gits, then then we will have a willing volunteer.

Inside PassageI love the smell of Deet in the morning, it smells of… actually, scrub that, it smells absolutely foul.

Of course the mossie problem – a quick count has the number of bites and scabs on the back of my right hand alone at about 20 – has been magnified by the quite remarkable weather, which held out throughout our stay in the 49th state.

Since the downpour which greeted us in Whittier two weeks ago, we have not seen one drop of rain in Alaska. The only rain we have had came during a detour into Canada.

We have had some cold nights, particularly as we edged to within 140 miles of the Arctic Circle, but the days have been glorious – the coldest night in Denali National Park to the heat of Juneau spanning more than 30 degrees Centigrade in little more than a week.

Mossie Bites
Scars of battle between the mossies and me

The warm weather brings T-shirts, shorts and sandals and acres of open skin for the mossies to attack. And boy have they risen to the challenge.

Not everybody, Phoebe for one appears not to have been bitten at all, but for those of us in the firing line, it has been a frustrating few days.

Even in the evenings, fully clad from head to foot, hands buried deep in my pockets and with my hoody top pulled tight, they’ve still found their way in.

Tonight, we have the sanctuary of the overnight ferry from Petersburg, out of Alaska and into Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

This is our third ferry down the Inside Passage on the Alaskan panhandle, the thin sliver which runs down the coast between the mountains, glaciers and the coast. It is also, bar a few small planes, the only way to get around in this neck of the woods.

Our first ferry belatedly ushered out of Haines to the state capital Juneau. In largely glorious sunshine, it was four hours on deck soaking up some breathtaking scenery and the wildlife it contains.

Douglas Island
View from the capital – Douglas Island seen from Juneau

Bald eagles have been regular companions during the last week, but there were sightings of sea otters, reports of whales and a lengthy escort by a pod of creatures.

There were those, seeing the white markings and black bodies, who argued they were baby orcas, but we were soon put right and informed they were a type of porpoise. Either way, they were spectacular.

Juneau itself is not what you expect from a state capital.

It is small and there’s not that much to the city centre, with most of its downtown shops and businesses geared to serving the cruise liners which line up at the dock (there were between three and five each day we were there, including a visit from our old friend the Diamond Princess).

Mendenhall Glacier
Mendenhall Glacier

There’s also not many places which can host a large green bus and a few tents dotted around it, hence us setting up camp 20-odd miles out of town.

Sadly, this caused a split in the group with half a dozen ‘rebels’ opting to stay closer to what action is on offer in a city centre hostel – or hotel for one of their number who fell victim to the pet stomach bug.

Why they did it is understandable and any resentment between the two camps has been buried since we reunited over a few beers. But we are in this trip together and, in my mind, we should stick together pretty much regardless.

It’s also a shame, because they missed out on a pretty good laugh at the campsite as we sparked up a roaring fire and broke out the marshmallows and a few beers.

Not that Fran was laughing as she became the latest victim of the stomach bug and set up home in the toilet block for the night. A guy did the same the following night and reported two bears wandering past the window.

Thankfully, she was soon back on her feet and back to full health, but not soon enough to enjoy another of the ‘wow’ moments on this trip – the Mendenhall Glacier.

Nugget Falls
Nugget Falls at Mendenhall Glacier

Having skied for many years, the odd glacier has crossed my path, but not normally on a stunning blue sky day and very rarely this beautiful, particularly if you throw in the neighbouring Nuggett Falls.

Our trek down to see both also produced another type of wildlife – the paddling Puggle.

Puggle is the nickname Phoebe has been landed with. Actually, it’s one of several, but the less flattering Skanky Weasel only applies to those times when we’ve been away from showers for a few days.

It harks back to day two, all those weeks ago, as we drove across Germany and Phoebe’s contribution to Phil’s team-building quiz: What do you call a baby echidna?

The name has stuck and, with her insistence on wandering around barefoot whenever possible, the walk down to the glacier provided plenty of opportunities to paddle in the lake and she left little wet Puggle tracks all the way down (quite helpful to track her as she walks inordinately fast for someone with such little legs).

Douglas Island
View from the capital – Douglas Island seen from Juneau

The glacier trip also produced not one, but two reprimands for Matty.

First up came one from Mr Ranger (it was like being in an episode of Yogi Bear) for parking in the wrong place and then, most dramatically, from the elementary school teacher who stepped out in front of the bus to scold us for turning in their car park. She actually made the time out signal in front of the bus.

She had a point, but why are her children playing in a busy car park in the first place?

There were no such run-ins with authority the next day as we ploughed into Juneau itself to sample its delights and did what has now become traditional when we hit any form of civilisation – grab our laptops and head off in search of wi-fi access.

Don’t worry, we didn’t spend all day in the same bar tapping away. Some left to head out on walking trails, some went to Wal-Mart (bizarrely) while several hit the multitude of barbers in Juneau and, in my case, grabbed the first haircut since Cardiff.

From there it was back out to sample the delights of Juneau by night.

Ohmer Creek
The reward for the basic campsite at Petersburg was this…

Poor old Nick, however, never reached that far as he became – in quite spectacular fashion – the latest victim of the sickness bug.

Shame really, he missed a good night which finally saw me enjoy a basketball game with a spectacular finale (Lakers v Suns, Western Conference Final, Game 5), but by the time we got back to the coach to head onto the ferry, we were delighted to see him back on his feet.

Freddie was not so delighted to see Nick had raided his collection of Coke at the back of the bus to hasten his recovery.

And so starts the tale of two nights which kicked into action sometime after 1am.

The first came on the ferry from Juneau to Petersburg, which a group of us opted to spend wrapped up in sleeping bags on the aft deck to watch the scenery go by and the sun rise.

It was surprisingly pleasant and the plan is to repeat it tonight. Hopefully, this time some of us won’t sleep through the sunrise.

The next night – following a quiet day on a Petersburg campsite, enlivened by the late arrival of a local not too happy we had pitched our tents all over the space he claimed to have reserved by throwing a flea-bitten tent on the ground – had a rather less pleasant outcome.

Leaving Petersburg on the ferry to Prince Rupert

The sickness hit sometime between 1am and 2am and boy does it come on fast.

Around 11am I was lying awake listening to my iPod, feeling fine. By midnight, I was fast asleep (eyewitnesses can vouch for this – or should they be earwitnesses). By around 1am, I was lying there wondering why the previous night’s veggie lasagne was having such a strange affect on me.

About five minutes later, we had an answer as, propped against the wall of a less than salubrious toilet, the lasagne returned with a vengeance.

Crawling back to bed and for long spells sat watching the dawn break, it was with huge regret about the amount of feta cheese consumed the night before.

Thankfully, the bug appears to last no more than 24 hours and this bout appears to have come in on the shorter side of that.

There won’t be anything too extravagant passing my lips until breakfast, but at least there was significant recovery to enjoy the lovely town of Petersburg, although not to eat the sandwich Mike kindly made me for lunch. Apologies, both for that and sitting on the one he made himself.

There’s not much in Petersburg, but it is charming, friendly and enough to recharge anyone’s batteries.

You can tell how good a place is by how energised everybody is when they eventually return from their exploring to descend upon the bus. Everyone was buzzing tonight and enlivened by wonderfully hot ferry showers, we head to Canada in high spirits.

And nobody, it appears, is sick…


Haines & Strange

Original posted in London to New York blog, May 24, 2010

Haines, Alaska

AMONG the welter of advice passed our way before we headed out of London what seems another lifetime ago, one nugget of information appears to ring true for all inhabitants of the bus.

All of us were assured, by friends wanting to be helpful or shop assistants seeing the chance of a few winter clothes and expensive sleeping bags going on their sales figures, that Alaska in May would be cold and wet.

And while a couple of evenings have turned very cold when the sun eventually vanished in the early hours, we have been in far greater danger of sunburn than suffering from the cold.

Takhini Hot Springs
Hot stuff at Takhini

As for rain, that has been confined to our detour into Canada on top a mountain pass and a 20-minute shower in Takhini, when most of us were already wet as we boiled in the hot springs.

To avoid us constant forays under the bus to fish stuff out of our main bags, we have been limiting access and packing smaller day bags to equip us throughout the next 24 hours or so.

My bag included gloves, woollen hat and stuff to keep me warm and dry at the start of this leg. Now it is stuffed full of shorts, T-shirts and suntan cream. Forget Jack Frost, the only thing nibbling at sandal-clad toes are the mosquitoes.

As well as the weather leaving us slightly dazed and confused, for much of the time since docking in Anchorage we have barely had darkness.

Haines Highway
Spectacular views at the top of the Haines Highway from Canada back into Alaska

As we drift south towards the Canadian border and onwards to the Lower 48 States, it is now getting dark around 10.30pm, but for the bulk of the first week back on land, the combined effects of it still being light until the early hours and a couple of erratic time changes left us all a little disorientated

Nothing like, however, as disorientating as the sickness bug sweeping through the camp, claiming roughly half the bus to varying degrees over the past few days.

One ended up deserting the campsite in favour of the adjacent hotel, while two sufferers have set up overnight camp in toilet blocks of differing degrees of comfort to make life a lot easier.

Haines Highway
And the view was pretty good down in the valley

As a consequence, life on the bus and campsite has had to change a bit.

The bus is currently being attacked with bleach and disinfectant and the kitchen has been closed down until the weekend at least.

And, before somebody else alleges otherwise, we can rule out any link between my stint running the kitchen and the current outbreak – at least three victims ate elsewhere that night and didn’t sample my burritos.

Kitchen stints have been split into teams of three for an evening meal and the following breakfast and, on the whole, have produced some pretty good food.

Washing up and packing stuff away onto the bus has also become a well-drilled art, particularly as it seems to be the same old faces weighing in every time.

Breakfast is mixed in with the scramble to pack down tents and return the cushions and assorted stuff onto the bus, which has produced a few bits of tension with Pam and myself installing ourselves as cushion monitors to prevent a repeat of the evening when there were not enough left aboard for the bus dwellers.

View from the campsite in Haines

Despite illness problems and campsite conflicts, the past few days have sailed along dominated by stunning scenery and wildlife.

When you left us, we were back in Canada, rolling onto the ferry across the Yukon at Dawson City at the start of the long haul to Whitehorse (part of a 1,000 mile stretch without a traffic light).

Courtesy of a late night and a sore back from sleeping in a cubby hole on the bus – very comfortable, but not the easiest of access- much of the drive passed me by, as did much of Whitehorse itself.

But, awoken from a snooze under one half of Phoebe’s sleeping bag and a pile of other clothes, we got our first sighting of a bear as he gambolled on the grass verge before heading back into the undergrowth.

From Whitehorse, we veered back towards to Alaskan border via a night at the Takhini Hot Springs and probably the warmest swim any of us have had.

The drive from Haines Junction across the border to our stop in Haines has to rate as one of the most thrilling pieces of road around.

Chilkoot Lake
Sunset over Chilkoot Lake, Haines

Having travelled on some stunning roads in the Alps, Pyrenees and the eastern USA – not to mention this trip – the Haines Highway ranks right up there.

Flanked by high, snowy mountains, it drops down to run alongside a wide, fast-flowing river where initial howls of horror on discovering our comfort stop’s facilities were closed were replaced by cries of glee and the clicking of cameras at the sight of a giant moose playing to his audience on an island in the middle.

The town of Haines itself is pretty spectacular, draped around a natural harbour and flanked by a range of towering mountains.

It must be pretty bleak in winter, but with the sun out it is stunning and smalltown America at its best and friendliest.

It is also our starting-off point for the ferry down the Inside Passage, the only way down the panhandle of Alaska to state capital Juneau and beyond, cut off from the interior as it is by the mountains and glaciers.

Subdued by the first outbreak of sickness and the growing need to wash (both ourselves and our clothes), our scheduled day in Haines was taken up largely with housework and pootling around the camp, particularly for those of us on cooking duty.

But news that the evening ferry to Juneau was delayed until morning proved a blessing in disguise as a group of us piled on the bus for a short evening trip to Chilkoot Lake.

And, not for the first time this trip, sitting on the banks of a lake as the sun disappeared behind a mountain produced a real ‘wow’ moment.

Sitting on the edge of such a remarkable setting was good enough, but then something broke the water about 30 yards out – a sea otter fishing away regardless and providing us with a stunning show until swimming off downstream , only to be trumped by the bald eagle sat in the tree across the river.

We had seen a couple flying over the harbour the day before at a distance, but this commanding bird sat yards away, seemingly uncaring about his grateful audience and soaking up the evening sun.

Truly marvellous and well worth an extra night in Smalltown USA.

Mosquito update: Basically, the little buggers appear to be telling their mates about the bountiful meal to be had down at the local campsite.

My arms, hands and knees are an interesting mixture of old and new (in one place, a new bite on an old scab), my back has become a new favourite (they’ve moved up from my arse, but not without leaving their mark) while they have moved down from my hair to my face.

And as for the huge great welt on my big toe – this means war…

Next time: Glaciers, waterfalls, imitation orcas, paddling Puggles and more bloody mossies


I Don’t Want To Wait…

Original posted in London to New York blog, May 22, 2010

Dawson City, Yukon, Canada

“One of your guys looks like he’s been Chicken’d”

IT may be the smallest town any of us have come across, but the settlement of Chicken, Alaska, has left its mark on our band of weary travellers.

The top count was nine buildings of any major note – and four of them were toilets, or Chicken Poops as they are known at the bar – but its legend has obviously gone far and wide.

The guy who ran the hostel which housed us in our next stop, over the border in Canada, had no doubt about where we had been.

Heart of the action in Chicken

It wasn’t the Chicken T-shirts which have appeared throughout the group and should really require us to check what each other is wearing in the morning to avoid clashing (they have certainly been crucial in a week without any washing facilities).

No, he took one look at one our of younger members looking much the same grey as the rock he was sprawled on for much of the day and uttered the above words of welcome.

Sadly, his identify has to remain a secret due to the threat of a high-powered legal team being sent my way.

But suffice to say, Freddie (oh sod it, here come the legal letters) was merely the worst affected from a cracking evening in Chicken. You could say he got roasted.

Caps and remnants of underwear adorn the Chicken Saloon

It is a tiny town. There are a few houses tucked away somewhere, but Downtown Chicken – as it is proudly titled on a road sign – consists of three wooden buildings in the middle of a dusty, dirt area.

On one end is a café, linked via a chicken coop – complete with ‘Beware of the Attack Chicken’ sign – to a tiny bar which was not big enough to hold all of us that evening and a gift shop which we raided for Chicken paraphernalia.

Apart from that, there is the campsite at the old gold mine (very Scooby Doo) where we stayed, complete with a small café and shop.

And that’s all folks – nothing more to see or do, yet it provided us with a truly memorable short stay.

We arrived four days after much of the town (settlement? hamlet? fork in the road? shed?) had opened for the season, just as the first of the gold miners who head this way each spring have started to trickle into town.

Yep, that is a runway with a chicane on the Alaska-Canada border

But, sadly, a day before they had taken delivery of any gunpowder for the cannon used to fire underwear over the car park.

The torn remnants of knickers and bras hang from the ceiling of the tiny bar, along with hundreds of baseball caps, signed and donated by past customers.

The room also crams in a pool table which requires anybody playing half seriously to read the break to see which way their balls will run.

Having started off with five straight wins in our two visits either side of dinner, my form deserted me as Mike took control of the table for much of the evening.

The rest of us settled in to chatting at the bar, raiding the shop, meeting the locals and assorted summer visitors (which is where it all went a bit wrong for Freddie) and waiting for it to go dark.

We gave up sometime after midnight, with it still light, and went to bed.

Little Gold CreekEarly the next morning we bade farewell to Chicken (and a litany of bad puns) via the Top of the World Highway and into Canada, via the smallest, remotest border crossing any of us have seen.

I now boast a stamp from Little Gold Creek in the Yukon Territory in my increasingly full passport. Just try to find it on a map.

From there we rolled off the top of the world and down to Dawson’s Creek, where we were subjected to endless hours of teenage angst, played out by a bunch of all-American looking actors who left High School years before, who never get round to sleeping with each other and are incapable of using one word when an entire page of script will do… Oh, hang on.

Sorry, this was Dawson City, our first stop in Canada.

It wasn’t exactly a creek either, more of a bloody great river – the Yukon, scene of one of the great gold rushes of the 19th century. Back in 1898, the population was estimated at around 35,000, now it is a shade under 2,000.

Dawson City
The main street in Dawson City

How 35,000 fitted into the narrow strip between the river and the mountain backdrop is anyone’s guess, but it explains why (helped by a typhoid outbreak) the city spread across the Yukon (a river, does indeed, run through it) and why we needed to utilise the free 24-hour ferry between the two halves.

And well worth taking it is – not that staying back on the west bank hostel wasn’t a good option with another of the hugely relaxing early evenings spent sat out in the sun overlooking the scenery with appropriate iPod accompaniment (a bit of the Be-Good Tanyas).

But we headed east, first for an afternoon stroll into the delightful, small town and then for an evening sortie with the original plan of descending on Diamond Tooth Gerties Saloon for a burlesque show.

As usual, however, only a few made it as Nick, Mike, Barry and I were distracted by the delights of Bombay Peggys.

Moon over The Yukon

What was, again, meant to be only one dragged on rather longer as we settled in with the locals. Our excuse is that we are completely disorientated by the fact the sky is still a perfect blue at midnight.

As our numbers were swelled by refugees from Gerties (Pam and Marlo waving certificates to proved they had downed a Sourtoe cocktail – complete with mummified human toe), most of us eschewed an onward trip to The Pit, heading back through the 1am twilight to bed – in my case a cubby hole on the bus courtesy of the main sleeping area being stripped of mattresses by the tent dwellers.

Where one of those who did go to The Pit slept is anyone’s guess…

The Yukon
The Yukon under the midnight sun at Dawson City

NB Mosquito update: The nasty little bastards are still taking their toll. My right knee now looks like some complicated constellation is tattooed on it.

But the most concerning area is the collection of bites around the base of my back and, to put it bluntly, the top of my arse.

Travel tip: Don’t wear low-slung jeans when travelling in mosquito areas (or ever, if my fellow travellers had their way).

Next time: My turn on cooking duty – half the bus is ill. Are these facts linked?